Psychotherapists as Dance Archaeologists

by Karen Smith

dance archaeologyAn element of a good psychotherapy, the one that requires the most skill and psychological strength from the therapist, is one’s work uncovering early childhood dynamics (archaeology) that impact our daily patterns (dances).

No matter what brings folks to therapy, eventually, patterns from childhood become a centrally relevant part of the therapy. While we often wish our childhoods and original family relations were not so influential in adult functioning, we are commonly plagued by relationship dynamics we recognize as a direct response to our family of origin.

Here is an explanation through metaphor of why we repeat patterns from our families of origin and how therapy helps us change that.

By interacting with us in very specific ways, and engaging with each other in very specific ways, over and over, our parents/caretakers teach us a handful of “dances”. These dances are so deeply ingrained in our psyches, we don’t even notice what moves we are making, or that we are even engaged in a dance, much less that there are tons of other dances we could do instead.

As we enter adulthood, we do our dance—a combination of the dance each key person from childhood did with us, and the dance the adults in our lives did with each other and with others around them—and we go about to find partners who do a dance similar to ours. Then we dance with those partners, get into fights about the slight differences in our dances and slowly teach them to dance like us and us like them, until we have successfully created an eschewed version of whatever dance we had hoped we would never do again once we grew up.

Those of us who have had an intimate partner have lived the experience of feeling like our partner was perfectly matched to trigger our most primitive issues. It is this same phenomenon that results in us frequently finding ourselves in a repeating pattern with friends, bosses and peers. It is not just that we attract and are attracted to a particular type of relational dynamic; we actually build the dynamic.

In psychotherapy, a trained therapist can feel the push of our dance moves on their psyche. Rather than simply react with a complementary move, they are trained to try on the complementary dance moves inside themselves. They can reflect upon the pressure they are feeling to respond a certain way, and help us think about why we are seeking that response. Therapists can stay aware of the pressure to do our dance, and help us consider other possible dance moves until it is understood that there is a choice about what kind of dance we want to do—but only after grappling with each ingrained, assumed step.

We often come to therapy for concrete issues related to relationships, life transitions, stressful work situations or other external crises. What psychotherapy has to offer, however, is much greater. Its ultimate goals are fundamental shifts in how we see/experience/think about ourselves, our relationships and existence itself.

Karen L. Smith, MSS, LCSW, is the director of Full Living: a Psychotherapy Practice, which serves the Greater Philadelphia area. For more information, call 215-494-7818, email KarenSmith@FullLiving.com or visit FullLiving.com. October 2015.


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4 thoughts on “Psychotherapists as Dance Archaeologists

  1. Karen L. Smith, love your metaphors; archeology and dance. You are so right to bring this to the level of the therapeutic process. There is one hesitation I would like to communicate re your description of the relationship between the client and the therapist. You write:
    “In psychotherapy, a trained therapist can feel the push of our dance moves on their psyche. Rather than simply react with a complementary move, they are trained to try on the complementary dance moves inside themselves. They can reflect upon the pressure they are feeling to respond a certain way, and help us think about why we are seeking that response. Therapists can stay aware of the pressure to do our dance, and help us consider other possible dance moves until it is understood that there is a choice about what kind of dance we want to do—but only after grappling with each ingrained, assumed step.”
    My hesitation here relates to boundaries. If the therapist “steps” out of the observer role and allows the dance patterns to be experienced internally, the therapist becomes enmeshed with the client/dancer. The therapist’s reflection is blurred with her own associations, triggers and experiences. I like to refer to Winnicott’s “holding environment”; the therapist, by observing and supporting the client, is enabling the client to express his or her dance freely while the therapist provides the safe environment in which the dance can be witnessed. Only after that nonverbal expression is completed, can the therapist guide the client towards an understanding of the source that dance and begin to provide alternatives. Thanks Karen for the opportunity to express my opinion.

    • Thanks for you comments Sara. I understand your position, though contemporary analytic and relational theories have taken a very different stance. My theoretical stance contains the use of protective identification as a diagnostic tool in the school of Object Relations theory from Klein, through Bion, to contemporary practitioners, who coin counter-transference not as Freud’s “noise in the machine” but as a key tool for understanding primitive methods of unconscious communication. The therapist associations, day dreams and internal reactions are treated as paramount to unpacking the clients material.

      I agree that concepts of boundaries are both essential and radically different within different conceptual frameworks. I think a relevant distinction not successfully clear with the use of the word “boundary”, is whether we are talking about behavioral/relational, verbal/self-disclosure, or use of self as a countertransferential instrument. I suspect a fair number of us would agree on boundaries in the behavioral/relational world of therapist/client relationships, but with significant differences in the latter two.

  2. It’s very hard to give up these old dances unless a person has some options of different ones. One important learning in psychotherapy is crafting new and different dances to aspire to, otherwise just leaving the old ones can feel too overwhelming.

    • I agree Maggie that sometimes it feels magical when a therapist offers up a version of relating the client has never considered. I have felt that as both client and therapist!

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